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Music to my ears

Posted: September 20, 2013 - 4:35pm

Well, it’s that time again. The Beloit Mindset list for the class of 2017 is out so it must be fall. I was going to ignore the list again this year when I noticed that some of the more exciting things were that LL Cool J might be at parents’ day, and Jerry Garcia has always been dead. Then I saw that the CD player in the parents’ car is soooo embarrassing and thought “Wait a Minute! I remember being thrilled when our car had a cassette tape player.” If these kids are forever attached to an iPod (or whatever) they have missed out on some of the greatest music delivery systems of all time.

I’m not quite old enough to have listened to music on a Victrola or a gramophone, but in Grandma’s attic she had a really old phonograph in a big heavy box. You wound it up with a crank on the side. Mom would help us play it once in awhile. The needle was in a big arm that you placed on a spinning cylinder and the resulting music was tinny and hollow-sounding. Grandma’s attic was an interesting place and the phonograph was only one of many intriguing things we dug into but that big old machine was the first place we headed when we were allowed in the door.

My parents had a fair collection of 78 rpm records. We kids were allowed to listen to them if we were careful. Not only did they break at will (they were pressed from a hard material that did not bend; dropping one on a hard floor could break it), but they scratched easily and eventually were rendered unlistenable if little hands dragged the needle across them very often. Mom and Dad were of the Big Band era, and young Frank Sinatra, but their records were mostly Country and Western — Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubbs, Sons of the Pioneers and other artists we don’t hear today but were the real backbone of Country music.

My Aunt and Uncle had a player piano, another unique music delivery machine. It was like a regular upright piano, but in the front were sliding doors that concealed a mechanism where you placed a roll of perforated paper. As you pumped the pedals near the floor (also concealed by sliding doors), the scroll would unroll and play music when the perforations jogged a needle-like protrusion that stimulated certain keys to react. The fun was pumping harder and harder to produce a waltz at march tempo. Needless to say, my aunt didn’t let us play the piano often.

By the time I was listening to “my” music — Les Paul and Mary Ford, Elvis, Connie Francis, the Ames Brothers, Fats Domino — vinyl records had become the mode. They came in 45 rpm singles and the “new” LP (Long Play) album, at 33 1/3 rpms, had several songs on each side. They, at least, didn’t break easily but could be scratched and they warped if not stored correctly. Phonographs had three speeds, 78, 33, 45 on them that you selected with a switch. My brother’s thing was to play a record at the wrong speed. Speeding up was the most fun, but slowing one down also provided interesting sounds.

And by then we had The Hit Parade on the radio each week and eventually on TV, although it never proved to be a very popular form of entertainment on TV — how many ways can you portray “Autumn Leaves” as the top selling song without falling into parody?

After vinyl records came the cassette tape and then the 8-track. We even had a car that had an 8-track player in it (and these kids think a CD player is embarrassing). These innovations were really the first time one could carry favorite music along. Cassette tapes were much better sounding than 8-tracks, and easier to transport. Most cars for a few years had cassette tape players included right below the radio, usually.

And then CDs. They were supposed to be the epitome of music system cool but the sound quality just isn’t there and nowadays those who really savor music are returning to the vinyl records. After my last confession about hoarding books, I hate to admit that we also have a large accumulation of music in just about every format. And to make it even worse, our favorites appear in each rendering. Everyone needs Johnny Cash’s Favorite Hits on 8-track, vinyl, cassette, and CD.

So the Class of 2017 will plug themselves in to their iPods, attach themselves to the keypad of their telephones and finish college not making eye contact with anyone. They’ll never have the experience of watching their mom sing along with Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “My Happiness” or play “Blue Tango” so many times their dad threatens to break the record over his knee, or even call a friend for homework help and hear “That’s Amore” in the background. But then they think Dean Martin has always been dead, too.

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.

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